A Former Guru Reviews Kumaré (The ‘Fake’ Guru)

I’m Not Your Post-guru Guru

In the aftermath you cling to the hope that you still have some teaching to give. When the tenderly constructed illusion fractures, you pray that among the ruins a fragment of meaning remains—an insight dependant upon your own particular sadness. But what you’re left with, instead, is a crippling regret, an ego recovering from a savior complex. Life, post-mania, is one of tending to an irrational belief in your own total—and one-sided—complicity. You feel responsible for those you deluded.

In constructing a narrative out of this experience you find yourself consistently dumb. The ‘truths’ you attempt to elicit, to express, sound trite coming from your once holy lips. Everything falls short, until you realize that the only thing that breathed helium into your ‘insights’ was the highly tuned ears receiving your teachings.

The responsibility you feel is total. If you aren’t going to save someone from death (endless death, to be precise), then you’re responsible for ruining their life.

Thoughts like these held me captive for a very long time. I spent years in my post-guru life believing that I was in the process of deflating my enlarged skull only to find that I had yet to scale down my own sense of immeasurable importance. In my mind, I was still the most significant force in the lives of my former students. And I ached to feel that significant—that ‘connected’—again.

Mirror Mirror

Vikram Gandhi, in his film Kumaré (The True Story of a False Prophet), touches upon this longing. Gandhi’s film is a Borat-esque documentary about his time as Kumaré, a guru and mythology he fabricated, who develops a small following of devoted disciples in the Arizona desert—only to later reveal his true identity (and lack of magical powers) to his acolytes. In the closing moments of his narrative, Vikram speaks of his own feelings of isolation and how his creation enabled him to connect more deeply with others. Essentially, as a guru Vikram felt a greater intimacy, almost as if his devotees had drawn him out of his own isolation.

But there are conflicting messages underpinning the logic of the film. In this regard, Vikram argues that Kumaré is a mirror reflecting the most cherished—and until then hidden—qualities undergirding the ‘true selves’ of his followers. And yet, if he was acting as a mirror, was he, Vikram, ever truly seen? Or was he simply an object upon which others could project their fantasies? By this logic, Kumaré was recognized, not Vikram. In this respect, it is not a dialogue (a mutual seeing) but a monologue. Vikram was abandoned somewhere along the road to spiritual enlightenment so that others (his followers) could converse with their own dreams of a perfect self.

It is for this reason I question the depth of Kumaré’s relationships. Are performance and deception the basis for real human intimacy? Was Vikram really connecting as Kumaré, or was he simply basking in the adulation his creation was receiving as an ‘enlightened holy man?’ In this regard, Kumaré is not a mirror but a canvas upon which his followers sketched portraits of their idealized savior. This raises an even more significant question: Does every outlandish fantasy, every dream of a better world, depict an accurate reflection of one’s true self? Or is it simply that many of these projections are symptoms of an unhealthy infatuation with spiritual perfection—a kind of undiagnosed fetish for the unrealizable that forfeits human intimacy for the forever-elusive fantasy just beyond the horizon?

Will The Real Guru Please Stand Up?

Is Vikram, like me, mourning the loss of a profound dream? A shared delusion in which he was infused with the most tender, desperate hopes of his lonely sheep? If so, I don’t blame him. It’s a beautiful fantasy. Ironically, Kumaré was just as ‘real’ of a guru as I ever was. Enlightenment is a performance, not a reality. It is this difficult truth that Vikram’s film reveals. But it is a messy truth, full of sadness and heartbreak. It is a confession, not a lesson or teaching. It is an admittance, not a thesis. It is for this reason that Vikram transcends the mask of Kumaré and shows something of himself at the end of his sermons in the desert. It is this revelation, of both Kumaré and Vikram’s humanity, that is the most intimate moment of the film. I would argue that he connected more deeply, as a person, with those who once believed in him as Vikram than he ever did as Kumaré, that he achieved an authentic intimacy only once he cast aside his mirror-façade and revealed his own face.

The guru-complex in me wants to explicate further, to end this essay with a final truth. But, by now, I know better. That would be the lecture and I want the conversation—just as Vikram did when he killed his creation, Kumaré, so that the man, Vikram Gandhi, could be known and understood.

18 Responses to “A Former Guru Reviews Kumaré (The ‘Fake’ Guru)”
  1. julian walker says:

    dripping with grief lifted up by honesty.

  2. Philip Steir says:

    “a kind of undiagnosed fetish for the unrealizable that forfeits human intimacy for the forever-elusive fantasy just beyond the horizon?”
    Ain’t that the truth…..?
    So well said.
    Insightful essay/ review Mr Dodge. Thank you.

  3. Jesse says:

    Here’s Vikram giving a talk about his experience….

    I would love to keep this conversation going…

  4. Jason says:

    When I read statements like “Enlightenment is a performance, not a reality”, I simply have to laugh. This site is loaded with this kind of sweeping, dismissive statement. Have you never taken freshman logic? Perhaps you can truthfully say that you have never experienced anything resembling enlightenment yourself, but to assert that there is no such thing whatsoever? My, that I one grandiose claim. (And you KNOW this, of course, because you are?)

    Such a statement without some significant evidence-based arguments to support it is just intellectually irresponsible and downright stupid. And this is only one of dozens of such statements in this and other articles on this site. Is there such a need to NOT believe here that you all cannot think straight? This sounds familiar, only in reverse. to the faith based distortions of logic that are just as rampant in the community of true believers, whether they be New Age, Christian or otherwise.

    It’s time to put some brains into YogaBrains—authors who know the basic principles of human reasoning, i.e., how to state a thesis and support it with facts and rational arguments.

    It seems that none of the contributors here have studied basic logic or feel they need be constrained by such an inconvenient discipline.( After all, doesn’t my assertion make is so?) Start by cleaning up the cognitive distortions—the false syllogisms, the presumptive assertions of opinion as fact, the black or white, all-or-none thinking, and, finally, stop using the grandiose and contemptuous dismissals in place of reasoned argument. (as if arrogant contempt could simply make it NOT so.). Ah, if only I had such power and reality were that simple!


    • Shyam says:

      Jason, you take issue with my statement regarding enlightenment, but avoid unpacking my critique of idealism, which is inextricably tethered to my overall argument. Singling out that one sentence on the grounds of formal logic (without paying attention to affective and syntactical style) is fair enough. That one declarative sentence is liable to be committing any number of logical fallacies. But that is just one sentence in a much larger essay, and therefore has a real context that both includes and transcends that statement. In fact your pedantic question (re ‘to assert that there is no such thing whatsoever?’) comes off rather ‘freshman.’ Next time you’d do better to dig deeper into the discussion and actually say something rather than go on a whiny rant of snootitude, because you might then actually have something to say.

      • AM says:

        Self-sustaining ego-loaded retort! Sheesh. He was only attacking your writing/thinking. Not your soul. Unless you equate the two as one an the same with no room for transcendence beyond either.
        Perhaps that’s the block to getting over yourself and into the service-based role of a ‘guru’?

    • Grace says:

      So you have “evidence-based arguments” to prove that enlightenment exists. Awesome! Looking forward to hearing them! You clearly believe it exists but the burden of proof is on you. There is no scientific concept of “enlightenment”.

      Hey, this isn’t a scientific journal and this isn’t a research paper it’s a movie review. I believe that people are permitted to express their opinions in a personal essay.

      • “There is no scientific concept of “enlightenment”.”…and thats because there are no enlightened Scientists,……but there are a few who are too scared to admit “that science has proven there is SOMEWHERE ELSE, thats not here……

        ….None of them wants to be the first because they know they will be shot down in flames by their colleges whose incomes depend on them always having a”scientific” answer to everything,which is just not the case anymore…..Science is on the verge of “admitting” the Spiritual,MUST BE THERE!!

        • Philip Steir says:


          This is exciting news that science has proven there is somewhere else, that’s not here. Very cool. Please share this info with us. All of us at Yoga Brains love new scientific discoveries. We would all love to be informed about this new place. Btw… if there was a new place discovered by scientists, it would fall into the category as scientific…even if some scientists were afraid to admit it.
          Interesting claim you make that no scientist would want to be the first to discover a supernatural place. You are aware that if a scientist discovered such a place then that place would then become a scientific discovery. Right? Correct me if I’m wrong..please.

          For instance, if a scientist discovered another place that’s not here…. but there…. and Ganesh the elephant headed god was there too wouldn’t that be a great scientific discovery and that scientist would be hailed as a brilliant hero and Ganesh would then become part of the natural world? No?
          Or do you think that both Ganesh and this scientist would be shot down in flames? Yes? No?
          Excited to hear back from you.

    • Philip Steir says:

      What is your definition of enlightenment?

    • julian walker says:

      seeing as you are leveling an attack on all of the “yogabrains” jason – i will respond as well….

      there is a very common piece of rhetoric in spiritual/religious circles that you are invoking.

      basically, this tries to say that believers and non-believers are equally “fundamentalist” by equating:

      a) assertions of literal supernatural faith with

      b) assertions regarding the non-existence of certain entities (gods, demons, angels, souls) or reified mythic concepts (enlightenment, reincarnation, ultimate truth.)

      this is a form of relativism based in the misperception that there is no basis to talk about any belief that supposedly “can’t be proven either way,” or perhaps can “only be experienced.”

      so, because one cannot prove there is no such thing as enlightenment, to say so is considered EQUALLY faith-based as to say there IS such a thing.

      but this is essentially based in a form of religious apologetics that ignores the impossibility of proving a negative and confuses the burden of proof.

      think about it: what if i said i was able to levitate alone in a dark room, and that any form of technology interfered with my ability to do so.

      this of course makes it impossible to prove my claim – but i assure you that i experience it daily and it is true.

      you certainly couldn’t prove that i can’t levitate – but this does not put my claim about levitation into an unknowable category.

      the likelihood that i can actually levitate alone in a dark room is not made any greater by the fact that it cannot be “disproven.”

      we can similarly not disprove unicorns, fairies or that you are actually an alien from the pleidian constellation. this doesn’t qualify claims like these as being unknowable and assertions that they are not true because they have not been proven dogmatic.

      i have an observation of three key fallacies in logic that are extremely ubiquitous in the new age community.

      for fun, i call these the “diabolical trinity.”

      1) burden of proof
      this basically is the confusion over where the burden lies. i don’t have to prove that there is no such thing as a unicorn. the claim of unicorns is an extraordinary one and therefore requires extraordinary evidence.

      2) argument from ignorance
      essentially this one takes the form of: you can’t explain x (the universe, consciousness, coincidence) sufficiently therefore my explanation y (god, souls, synchronicity) is true.
      the problem is always that y has not been demonstrated in any way to be true, it is just assumed to be, as the person can see no other way to explain x.

      3) god of the gaps
      related to 2) – this one basically says, there is a gap in scientific knowledge so my supernatural explanation fits neatly into that gap and cannot be refuted, nor are other explanations plausible.

      there is a fourth common fallacy that has to do with the relativist misperception that the truth must always lie somewhere in the middle – and so whenever there are two conflicting positions, say: god or global warming or enlightenment or life after death, BOTH sides are extreme and similar in their dogmatism, while reasonable people inhabit some supposedly wise middle ground.

      but global warming is a fact.

      there is no evidence for god or life after death.

      enlightenment can be explained as part interesting brain state, part mythic literalist belief in avatars, part the longing to transcend our mortality and inner conflict.

      when we tackle a concept like “enlightenment” we start to see that it is based in a series of mythic claims about the nature of reality, the divine, and certain special people who have direct knowledge of something essentially unexplainable, unprovable and by definition supposedly beyond conceptual thought. this kind of concept can only really be looked at philosophically and psychologically as a faith-based device for gaining power of people.

      claiming to be divine, or be in direct contact with the divine, claiming to have knowledge of an ultimate truth that transcends mortality and the material world – all of these are in essence meaningless, not only because they bear no relationship to reality reason, scientific method – but because philosophically they are empty of content. philosophies based on these kinds of claims are mind-games that play on our capacity for abstraction and our deep conflict about being mortal, vulnerable organisms with desires, needs and emotions.

  5. Grace says:

    Gosh, you know this is just a beautifully written essay and I really connected with it as someone who was involved with a spiritual “Master” once upon a time. I cannot imagine my own spiritual teacher coming the the realizations that Shyam does here. In some ways I pity my own guru because while he received an endless supply of the narcissistic adulation he desired, I highly doubt that he made any authentic human connections in his entire lifetime.

    I haven’t seen the movie yet but I get the impression from interviews that Vikram feels a deep connection and continuing sense of obligation to the people that he “pranked” during the making of the movie. It’s almost as though he regrets that he cannot be Kumare for them (pure speculation on my part, but that’s how it looked). It seems clear that Vikram is a person with genuine empathy who actually cares about the “devotees” he inspired.

    Unfortunately, many of the very successful “Godmen” such as Sai Baba are unrepentant Narcissists with a capital N. They have no empathy; they simply do not care about their followers. Unlike Shyam, their illusion of superiority never fails them. They live parasitically off their devotees until they die. Many innocent people’s lives are destroyed in the process. I hope that the film-makers did not lose sight of that fact in their quest for spiritual answers.

  6. ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha lollol lol lol lol lol lmao lmao lmao lmao lmao lmao OHM OHM OHM OHM….MY GOD!

    • Philip Steir says:

      Did you proof read your response above? Do you have any clue as to what that might read/look like to someone past 1rst grade or not on LSD? Any ideas?

  7. Phillip says:

    I am now 61. When I was 21 I was pretty lost and for twelve months went to live with an Australian born yoga swami called Compassion who lived in a yoga commune in the mountains in country New South Wales. His guru was Swami Sivananda, a renowned yogi and western trained doctor in Rishikesh.
    Compassion used and received no money. He lived as a celibate yogi monk. He published a yoga magazine and lived a simple joyful life in the company of those who wished to spend time with him. He refused all requests to be a guru to anyone. He taught basic yoga and meditation and talked of his experience of a unified being/consciousness [sat-cid-ananda] that is all pervading in the universe.
    From a very young age I had experienced intimations of that same immanence but when I met Compassion the experience intensified remarkably and I saw in his eyes someone who had seen the depths of human suffering, who responded with immense compassion and love and was able to rise above that vision of suffering to reside in a state of bliss . At the same time he lead an engaged daily life with the same challenges and frustrations as anyone else. I stayed with him long enough to become his personal assistant and carer as he succumbed to Motor Neurone disease, lost his power of speech and lost the use of his arms. He returned to India to die shortly after and retained a transcendent experience of the Immanent till his death. I published a small volume of his poetical writings communicated by pointing with his toe onto an alphabet board. He called it “The Old Fool’s Himalayan Wanderings”.
    I never witnessed him asking for money or gifts or expressions of devotion nor would he accept them personally if offered. Any gifts or money given was used solely to maintain our yoga commune.
    His teaching was a basic Sivite approach of looking within yourself in meditation and in the stillness and silence of that state see what you experience. It seems to me Kumare’s approach had something of that basic Sivite approach and why shouldn’t that be helpful to anyone if I teach it or you teach it or Vikram Gandhi teaches it?
    I have a sense that Vikram’s Hindu grandma to whom the movie is dedicated had the last laugh. When observing her morning puja he witnessed a state of connectedness with something he longed for and had not been able to rediscover in his later life. Perhaps he needed to create Kumare to find it. I loved the part in the movie in the week before the unveiling. It made me laugh and squirm at the same time. He is clearly agonizing before perhaps for
    the first time in his life being real.

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